Kathleen Edwards: “Asking for Flowers”
“You get the dough, I get the glory” Kathleen Edwards sings on her new album, Asking for Flowers-but, based on how far she’s come since her first couple of albums, it seems like it’s high time she started getting more dough and more glory. Edwards’ first two albums revealed a budding songwriter who clearly worshipped at the altar of Neil Young and Bob Dylan-who doesn’t, really?-and an affinity for coloring almost perfectly within the lines of femme roots-rock; and if Asking for Flowers doesn’t find her straying too far from that blueprint, it does find her following it with such diversity and finesse that it’s not just her best record yet-by a longshot-but also as good a roots-rock record as any released over the past few years.
And it really is a roots-rock album- Edwards was clearly raised on a steady diet of country and rock and roll, and she’s so enamored with both that she doesn’t seem to know or care where one ends and the other begins. That suits the album just fine, because everything feels organic and natural, like she’s giving each song what it seems to call for, not attempting any stilted genre exercises. Edwards co-produces with Jim Scott (Whiskeytown), and the cast of stellar studio players includes regulars from Dylan and Tom Petty records, as well as steel guitar master Greg Leisz, who’s played with everyone from Joe Henry to Sheryl Crow; the musicians don’t mind blurring genre lines when the songs call for it, so there are countrified swells of organ and weepy pedal steel right alongside electric guitar riffs cribbed from classic rock songs.
Edwards has gained a lot of confidence as a record-maker-she’s not afraid to open the album with a slow, five-minute pop ballad (“Buffalo”) before cranking up the electric guitars on “The Cheapest Key,” and she’s smart enough to follow the intensity of “Oil Man’s War” with a palette-cleansing acoustic ballad (“Sure as Shit”). But where she’s really grown is in her songwriting; at this point she seems to be positively emanating great songs, and, if she can’t quite write anything, she comes pretty close. It is, after all, not just a roots-rock record, but a singer-songwriter record as well, and Edwards covers all her bases here, writing about love and war, life as a musician and life as a woman. She can write a devilishly nasty kiss-off (“The Cheapest Key”) and follow it up with an aching song of longing and domestic turmoil (“Asking for Flowers”), and she writes about social and political issues with just as much candor and wit.
On past albums, her songs could be roughly divided into story-songs and autobiographical songs, but this time she’s found a perfect balance, writing songs that are personal but not confessional, richly detailed but not detached. The relationship songs are never whiny or insular, and the ripped-from-the-headlines topical songs don’t lose heart of the humanity at their center. She’s got the insight and the tact to dress up her protest songs like story songs-“Oil Man’s War” is set in the Vietnam era, but the current-day implications are unmistakable-and she’s got the sense of humor needed to make “I Get the Dough, You Get the Glory” wistful and whimsical rather than self-indulgent. And “Sure as Shit” might be the best of the lot, mining the familiar territory of the love song and still making it endearingly idiosyncratic and sincere: “But I sure as shit do love you/ And I cuss because I mean it.”
If there’s anywhere where Edwards still needs to grow, it’s in her singing; she’s got a thin, meek voice that doesn’t have much variation, and she sings each song with the same earnestness, which means that some of her humorous lyrics lose a bit of their edge. But then, they always said Bob and Neil couldn’t sing, either-and while Edwards has a long way to go before she’s in their company, she’s certainly set herself apart from her peers with this funny, heartfelt album that attempts a lot and succeeds in all of it. It may not rewrite the rules for roots-rock albums, but it exemplifies them so well that it arguably deserves to become the new standard.